It normally comes in late July, The Heat. But it is already here, a good month early. Normally at this stage of summer, days are hot yet bearable, evenings are warm yet comfortable and nights are cool yet pleasant. With the wheat harvest barely started and the sunflowers only just opening their faces to the sun, though, the temperature here for well over a week now has kept nudging ever further into the upper 30s centigrade and only dropping back to the mid-20s during the sultry nights; in the south, meanwhile, it’s been in the low 40s easing back to the high 30s. And so for the first time ever in June, the opening line of a song that we sang in the acapella choir I used to belong to is already providing the mental background music to all our activities. Made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Rain, rain, rain, rain!” celebrates the long-awaited arrival of the rainy season to restore life to the arid, sun-scorched African savannah after months of torrid heat that turns the soil to dust.
“Oh, come, never come,” laments the song. And with each passing day we yearn for the precursory sound and lighting effects that herald the arrival of a crashing thunderstorm which will allow the weather magically to reset itself after days of steadily rising temperatures and ever-increasing humidity. Endless days during which the steamy heat is fierce and relentless, trapped beneath a stifling veil of high cloud that dulls only the sun’s glare but not its strength. In an effort to keep the heat at bay and maintain at least an impression of ‘less hot’ if not exactly ‘cool’, we live in a state of perpetual gloom, keeping windows and shutters closed and curtains drawn throughout the day. But as each sweltering day passes, the heat gradually seeps through the brick and stone and starts to trickle down the walls, gathering in steamy puddles about the house, and over time reduces the gap between outside and inside temperatures to just a few precious degrees. Night time brings at least some respite: now that our swanky new solar-powered air-con unit has supplanted the ceiling fan that in previous years barely managed to stir the thick heavy air into some semblance of a breeze to cool our clammy limbs, our bedroom provides an oasis of blessed, restorative cool. As soon as we rise, though, we are back to wading through those steamy puddles of heat, which seem to be getting deeper and thicker by the day.
“Oh, come to me, beautiful rain,” the song implores. Every day we scan the shimmering horizon for signs of cloud gathering over the Sibillini Mountains where lies the bubbling cauldron of thermals that cast great, pearlescent towers of cumulonimbus cloud up into the baking sky: the surest sign in these parts that a downpour is on its way. But nothing. Just a strangely colourless blanket of heat haze fraying the sky’s furthest edges. And so the mercury remains uncomfortably close to forty degrees for another day, and there are reports on the news about the heatwave and features on how to cope with its effects – for everyone is feeling the heat, not just we pasty, cool-blooded Anglo-Saxons.
It will come eventually, though; it always does. Usually it is in the early evening, by which time the air is so clogged with heat that every movement becomes a sweat-inducing effort. Over the Sibillini’s more northerly peaks the clouds will at last begin to bubble up. Then to gather into great churning clumps, then to coalesce into a roiling mass of grimy grey that quickly extinguishes the sun’s heat. The immediately fresher air will carry the scent of rain and we will both scurry around the house, flinging the windows open, ready to usher the longed-for cool into every muggy corner of the house. A bad-tempered breeze will start to tug at the tops of the trees, drive the cat-flap into a frenzy and set the shutters rattling. And within minutes big, fat, juicy rain drops will begin to splat with an almost audible sizzle onto the sun-baked terrace. Yess!
The drops will rapidly merge into heavy curtains of driving rain that billow and flap in the raging wind. Through the un-shuttered windows in the garden doors we will watch the rain drops bouncing off the rain-slicked tiles. Down the valley, sea and sky will merge into a vast and impenetrable wall of steel grey and within minutes the village will be lost within a swirling cloak of cloud. Thunder will roar as the demons of the Sibillini hurl down spears of lightning that flash silver-white against the now charcoal sky. And for a while it will seem as if the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse is nigh.
Within an hour it will be over, though. The demons will fall silent, gather their weapons and retreat to their mountain lair. The rain will abate and the slackening wind will flush the grey away, revealing a sky of purest pastel blue. Across it will be strewn bold streaks of lavender, pink and purple edged with gold. And as they slowly melt into the horizon, the sun will tentatively emerge once more. The storm will have done its job, though: the temperature will have almost halved and you will be able to almost taste the freshness in the air. So at last we will fling open the doors and windows and shutters, let the evening sunshine spill into every room and invite the playful breeze to blow away the drifts of stale heat that had accumulated in every corner. The re-set will be complete and normal service will be resumed.
But not yet. I stand up from my desk, open the shutters to my study window a chink and peer hopefully at the sky to the west: nothing; just featureless milky blue-grey. I sigh, return to my seat and turn up my desk fan another notch. “Oh, come to me, beautiful rain,” I plead.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing ‘Rain, rain, rain, rain!’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUH7PM0-cpI